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Interview with: Caroline Thomson

Chief Operating Officer at the BBC, Caroline Thomson, offers words of advice to students graduating at the University of York.

Caroline Thomson. Photo: BBCWhen Caroline Thomson was studying History at the University of York, the last thing on her mind was rising to be the position of number two in one of the world’s biggest broadcasters.

But that is where her career path has taken her. As the BBC's Chief Operating Officer and member of its Executive Board, she reports directly to the Director-General.

Her responsibilities include the BBC's Policy, Legal, Strategy, Property and Distribution functions, and all the Corporation’s major infrastructure projects, including digital switchover and the move to Salford.

By any measure, hers is a successful career. So what guidance would she offer to students graduating from the University of York this week?

“The best career advice is to think about the things that you’re good at and enjoy doing other than specific jobs. So if you really love writing or you enjoy analysing, or if you adore organising things or whatever, think about that and look for jobs that fit that skill set,” she says.

“The one lesson I take from my career is take the opportunities when they come along. I sometimes feel that young people nowadays are under such pressure for things they feel they have to plan everything.

“The people who work for me that I worry about are the ones who have got a life plan because I feel they are very likely to end up disappointed.”

Caroline Thomson who was speaking during a visit to York to deliver the inaugural Cantor Business Lecture and open the University’s new Law and Management building, began her career as a graduate trainee at the BBC working as a journalist. She feels her degree at York provided her with a solid grounding.

Have an idea of what you want to do but don’t have too much a of a life plan

“Doing a degree in history is very good training for being journalist  because what you essentially do is go to sources, find the facts of the event, collect them together and analyse them. Then you try and interpret them and explain what happened. That, essentially, is journalism.”

Caroline Thomson also studied Economics at York, which gave her what she modestly describes as ‘a basic smattering of knowledge’ of the subject. That helped in the next phase of her career where she moved into a more managerial role.

“The fundamental skill you need to do the job I do is that you need to be very well-organised and able to prioritise. In any University degree, you will do better if you can organise yourself and prioritise. You need to be able to think very clearly and communicate very clearly and, again, most arts subjects teach you that.”

She loves her work at the BBC, an organisation which, she says proudly, touches the lives of nearly everyone in the United Kingdom. She accepts that one day she may move on from the Corporation, but she espouses the same philosophy she advises those starting out in their careers.

“Have an idea of what you want to do but don’t have too much a of a life plan.”

And never ignore the “serendipitous opportunity”.